Ross Douthat is trying to imagine a world in which conservatism isn't a sick joke. He is unsuccessful.
OVER the last year, America’s professional intelligentsia has been placed under the microscope in several interesting ways. First, a group of prominent social psychologists released a paper quantifying and criticizing their field’s overwhelming left-wing tilt. Then Jonathan Haidt, one of the paper’s co-authors, highlighted research showing that the entire American academy has become more left-wing since the 1990s. Then finally a new book by two conservative political scientists, “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University,” offered a portrait of how right-wing academics make their way in a left-wing milieu. (The answer: very carefully, and more carefully than in the past.)Haidt is a perfect example of a "libertarian" academic. He interprets his data through his prejudices and preconceived notions about liberals. But conservatives are always at a disadvantage because they are usually supporting false theories. It tends to put one at a disadvantage in academia. Douthat uses questionable Haidt to prove liberals are increasingly left-wing. He doesn't look at the primaries, where Clinton, the by-far-less-left candidate, is expected to win. Douthat does what conservatives usually do, attempt to pass off ideology as data-based fact, using cherry-picked partisan scientists to support their slanted views.
Meanwhile, over the same period, there has been a spate of media attention for the online movement known as “neoreaction,” which in its highbrow form offers a monarchist critique of egalitarianism and mass democracy, and in its popular form is mostly racist pro-Trump Twitter accounts and anti-P.C. provocateurs.On the left we have liberal academics. On the right we have racist boobs who want to have sex with robots or pretend they can become Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.
I suspect these two phenomena are connected — the official intelligentsia’s permanent and increasing leftward tilt, and the appeal of explicitly reactionary ideas to a strange crew of online autodidacts.I suspect Ross Douthat is a man of marginal intelligence, but I have ample proof. This is one of the right's pet theories; the right is so horribly right because the left pushed them there by being so horribly left. Unless they grossly exaggerate the left's tilt, they have no argument. Obviously that never stops them.
For its opportunistic fans, neoreaction just offers a pretentious justification for white male chauvinism and Trump worship. But the void that it aspires to fill is real: In American intellectual life there isn’t a far-right answer to tenured radicalism, or a genuinely reactionary style.Actually there is, but as Douthat is about to acknowledge, it's a very ugly style as well.
Our intelligentsia obviously does have a conservative wing, mostly clustered in think tanks rather than on campuses. But little of this conservatism really deserves the name reaction. What liberals attack as “reactionary” on the American right is usually just a nostalgia for the proudly modern United States of the Eisenhower or Reagan eras — the effective equivalent of liberal nostalgia for the golden age of labor unions. A truly reactionary vision has to reject more than just the Great Society or Roe v. Wade; it has to cut deeper, to the very roots of the modern liberal order.Such as the Enlightenment, the eternal Satan in conservatives' Garden of Eden. The entire idea of progress and equality must be eradicated. The right, as Douthat demonstrates here, reject the greater equality between worker and boss, which spread prosperity instead of concentrating it into a few hands, and are nostalgic for all that was bad about that era: white male supremacy. The Reagan era helped eradicate economic equality so naturally they are nostalgic for every bit of that halcyon time.
Such deep critiques of our society abound in academia; they’re just almost all on the left. A few true reactionaries haunt the political philosophy departments at Catholic universities and publish in paleoconservative journals. But mostly the academy has Marxists but not Falangists, Jacobins but not Jacobites, sexual and economic and ecological utopians but hardly ever a throne-and-altar Joseph de Maistre acolyte. And almost no academic who writes on, say, Thomas Carlyle or T. S. Eliot or Rudyard Kipling would admit to any sympathy for their politics.That's because they're fascists and racists. This is the kind of intelligentsia Douthat wants, because what he really wants is to restore white male Christian supremacy. This is something that nobody will acknowledge in Polite Society. Douthat should have been tarred and feathered and ran out of town on a rail but here he is in The New York Times preaching Dominionism to cronut-eating "sophisticates."
But what can one do when the world is divided into liberals and neoreactionsists? The racist, sexist, fascist scum want to be admired, respected, put into the Koch Toilet Paper Seat Of Learning and paid lots and lots of lovely money. Just like liberal academics!
So far the conservative intelligentsia have a slight problem persuading anyone to take racism, sexism and fascism to heart. They have determined that the best method of persuasion is as follows:
1. Announce they have an idea.
2. Admit it's a stupid, racist, sexist, fascist idea.
3. Tell you that you should believe them anyway because Fairies.
Which is, in a sense, entirely understandable: Those politics were frequently racist and anti-Semitic, the reactionary style gave aid and comfort not only to fascism but to Hitler, and in the American context the closest thing to a reactionary order was the slave-owning aristocracy of the South. From the perspective of the mainstream left, much reactionary thought should be taboo; from the perspective of the sensible center, the absence of far-right equivalents of Michel Foucault or Slavoj Zizek probably seems like no great loss.Yes, it is a problem when your "reactionary style" on the right is little more than racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and fascism. In fact, you might start to wonder why Douthat is looking for a reactionary right to counter-balance the reactionary left. They do not seem to be nice people and will not help his cause, which is a theocracy in which Ross Douthat, a white (very), male (by default), Christian (theoretically), straight (also by default) person is the pinnacle of humanity.
But while reactionary thought is prone to real wickedness, it also contains real insights. (As, for the record, does Slavoj Zizek — I think.) Reactionary assumptions about human nature — the intractability of tribe and culture, the fragility of order, the evils that come in with capital-P Progress, the inevitable return of hierarchy, the ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline, the poverty of modern substitutes for family and patria and religion — are not always vindicated. But sometimes? Yes, sometimes. Often? Maybe even often.What a pathetic desire. It's both contemptible and horribly sad. I can't imagine what it would be like to have returning to a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic past (with a little fascism thrown in) as your most heart-felt desire.
The "inevitable return of hierarchy": an authoritarian division of people by class, sex, race, and ideology--with Ross "Fucking" Douthat on top, naturally. "The ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline": an art world designed by Thomas Kincaide and an intellectual world designed by its most mediocre minds. "The poverty of modern substitutes for family and patria and religion": (Partial) freedom from male control over sexuality, the (partial) equality of the sexes instead of being suppressed and held down in a pink ghetto, the freedom to worship or not as one sees fit. He's a sad little man.
But there's a strange irony in this mental masturbation. (Naughty touch, Ross!) Douthat used to live in that Utopia; he went to an exclusive prep school, although he complained it was not exclusive enough. Still, it was massively hierarchical, with one's family, religion and country determining one's place in the hierarchy. It should have been Heaven but instead it was his Hell.
For even when Ross "Fucking" Douthat lived in the best of all possible worlds, he was still low man on the totem pole. He wasn't popular with the ladies or the guys, and never became a Leader of Men. When he went on to Harvard it was even worse because his expectations were higher. Because Harvard! But no, Douthat was once again rejected by all the cool kids and it didn't matter that he had the right bona fides because there was always someone whose fides were a lot more bona.
So even if God descended from Heaven and bestowed his Holy Grace in the form of Infinite Cool upon Ross "Fucking" Douthat, Ross Douthat would still be the least of cool men and still be excluded from the top echelon of Cool.
But if Infinite Cool depended on your religion and how loudly you proclaim your religiosity, Ross would be the coolest. If people who are turned off by sexual independence are raised to the Cool Leadership, Ross would leave those good-looking, richer, better-connected Cool Leaders in the dust. And if Ross kept shouting Family! Family! Family!, maybe people will forget that Ross was raised by the wrong sort of people, people who failed at being liberal but became very good at being conservative and still did not have the Grace to send their only son and (half) heir to a prep school that would have certainly gained him admittance to the better clubs. If only....
But no matter where you go, there you are.
Pale, clumsy, and plain. Smart, but not smart enough. White male, but not male enough to lead others. Christian, but not charismatic enough to pass as a Patriarch. Just not good enough in this world of woe. So he wants to change the world. He wants to tear down the old order and create a new one in which he'll rise to the top--against all logic, history, or biology. He will never get what he wants but he doesn't mind destroying a bunch of lives while he tries.
Both liberalism and conservatism can incorporate some of these insights. But both have an optimism that blinds them to inconvenient truths. The liberal sees that conservatives were foolish to imagine Iraq remade as a democracy; the conservative sees that liberals were foolish to imagine Europe remade as a post-national utopia with its borders open to the Muslim world. But only the reactionary sees both.Iraq-as-democracy was what, the third? fourth? rationalization for invading Iraq. Douthat must squeeze the truth until it fits into his narrative. Liberals did not imagine any Utopias, no matter what any elite says. The elites told their followers that the lesser of two evils is the best of all possible worlds and the followers mostly believed them. By now Douthat is strangling the truth to get it to fit.
Is there a way to make room for the reactionary mind in our intellectual life, though, without making room for racialist obsessions and fantasies of enlightened despotism? So far the evidence from neoreaction is not exactly encouraging.
Yet its strange viral appeal is also evidence that ideas can’t be permanently repressed when something in them still seems true.There are a lot of things that are not repressed on the internet. I suggest Douthat should not look for them, to spare his virgin eyes. Meanwhile, no, we are not going to usher in Douthat's Utopia of Me with welcome arms. Or, to spare the man, a soft handshake.
Maybe one answer is to avoid systemization, to welcome a reactionary style that’s artistic, aphoristic and religious, while rejecting the idea of a reactionary blueprint for our politics. From Eliot and Waugh and Kipling to Michel Houellebecq, there’s a reactionary canon waiting to be celebrated as such, rather than just read through a lens of grudging aesthetic respect but ideological disapproval.I'd love to see those banners. Celebrate our racist past! Bow before your God! Know your place!
A phrase from the right-wing Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez DavilaYou have to be kidding me. Doesn't Douthat realize anyone can google his dropped names and see exactly how appalling they are?
could serve as such a movement’s mission statement. His goal, he wrote, was not a comprehensive political schema but a “reactionary patchwork.” Which might be the best way for reaction to become something genuinely new: to offer itself, not as ideological rival to liberalism and conservatism, but as a vision as strange and motley as reality itself.That's vague enough to get a book out of it, although Douthat will have a lot of competition in that market. There's no end of people who write about their desire to go back to a time of white supremacy.
I bet none of them would think Douthat is cool either.